What we want from BEIS: a wishlist for the green economy – Part one

EXCLUSIVE: In the first of a two-part feature, edie speaks to the sustainability professionals, politicians, businessmen and environmental activists working across the green economy to find out they want to see from the Government in this new Parliamentary session.

An ambitious, effective and consistent green policy approach from the UK Government has never been more essential.

The shock decision to leave the European Union (EU) in June resulted in one of the greatest upheavals in British political history; with the resignation of David Cameron, the ensuing appointment of new Prime Minister Theresa May and the suprising axe and merger of DECC into an expanded, business-focused department.

MPs return to Westminster this week after a somewhat chaotic summer recess, with many energy and environmental ministers having to quickly get to grips with their new roles in the ministerial shake-up. The focus now immediately shifts to early policy actions which will provide a strong indicator as to how exactly the new-look Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) will approach key green policy issues.

Will BEIS reverse the ‘chop-and-change’ ethos enstilled by DECC last year? Will Britain follow the US and China in ratifying the Paris climate agreement? And can the nation ramp up its efforts on air quality, renewable energy investment and sustainable city development, despite the on-going Brexit uncertainty? 

Over the past few weeks, edie has heard from more than a dozen leading environmental figures who have exclusively revealed their biggest hopes and expectations for the next few months. Here is the first half of a green policy wishlist that sustainability leaders would like to see become key priority in the upcoming autumn session.

What we want from BEIS: The green policy wishlist

Read part two here.

1) Work closely with Defra to maintain EU environmental regulations post-Brexit

An issue of overriding importance for green business is the necessity for the Government to start focusing on the reality of Britain’s vote to leave the EU. With more than 70% of the UK’s environmental laws deriving from Brussels, it will be crucial to see a firm commitment from MPs within both BEIS and Defra to continue to uphold key EU environmental protections, regardless of the outcome of Brexit.

Last week, Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) chair Mary Creagh told edie that the Government’s green departments must form a Brexit strategy that provides evidence on how the UK plans to tackle key issues such as worsening air quality levels and its “poor quality” water sites

Speaking about the opportunity for Parliament to deliver a clear vision for the post-Brexit climate, Renewable Energy Association (REA) chief executive Nina Skorupska said: “We believe that the most prudent strategy right now is for the entire existing energy policy framework presently emanating from the EU to be transposed into UK law.

“This would provide stability throughout the negotiations, while still allowing us to then examine what should be kept, amended, or discarded once the negotiations have concluded.”

2) Ratify the Paris Agreement NOW

As mentioned in numerous stories covered by edie over the past few months, Britain’s decision to leave the EU could have wide-ranging implications for the UK’s position of global leadership on climate change. With the impacts of global climate change becoming ever-clearer to see, many observers insist that the UK must maintain and strengthen the momentum set at the COP21 negotiations and continue to project soft power globally.

The US and China marked a major breakthrough in the battle to limit global warming by officially ratifying the Paris Agreement over the weekend – now the pressure is mounting for the UK to rapidly follow suit. Politicians and campaign groups alike are now calling on Prime Minister May to ratify the climate deal, with Greenpeace organising a petition that has gathered more than 100,000 signatures.

Green Alliance’s head of politics Paul McNamee said: “The UK can ratify the Paris Agreement earlier than expected in November to give a clear indication to the rest of the world that the UK intends to remain a global leader.

McNamee’s view is shared by Friends of the Earth campaigner Elaine Gilligan, who stated that the ratification of the Paris accord “must be a top priority for the next Parliament”.

3) Do not become the dead hand of the Treasury

Britain’s strong voice on the international stage has seldom been replicated sufficiently across domestic green policy. The controversial closure of DECC following the May’s appointment to No.10 raised eyebrows, with concerns that climate change could slip down the agenda under the new Government.

With the dust now settled on the formation of the BEIS and the ensuing ministerial shake-up, senior figures have commented on the opportunity of this new business-related department to drive industrial climate action.

But this will only happen if the new green ministers develop and maintain a strong backbone. For too long, the old department was viewed as a “hostage of the Treasury”.

Leading environmentalist Jonathon Porritt warned: “If we have the same balance of power where the Treasury continues to call all the big shots like infrastructure, industrial priorities and other things like Hinkley Point and so on, then we won’t really see the kind of progress we really need.”

4) Bring back Britain’s status as a world-leader on renewable energy investment 

The uncertainty and turbulence likely to be faced during the Brexit negotiations will require the Government to provide companies with clarity around the near-term future of key renewable energy policies. As reported several times by edie, the UK’s attractiveness as a destination for investment in renewable energy has reached an all-time low, due to a series of unexpected green policy U-turns and the on-going uncertainty surrounding the role of renewables in our energy mix.

The Conservative Government’s highly-criticised policy decision-making last year included subsidy cuts for onshore wind and solar panels, leading to clean energy developers admitting they will not lend to renewable projects in the UK until there is more clarity.

Energy and Climate Change Committee chair Angus MacNeil recently told edie the problem with the Government’s 2015 approach was that it “created too many barriers to investment for business”.

Confirmation now about policies such as Contracts for Difference (CfD), Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation, Business Rates, and others, would undoubtedly be a positive step towards maintaining investor confidence in the industry and ensuring day-to-day renewables deployment.

“The UK is screaming out for renewables investment and screaming out for the Government to stop viewing itself as a company but actually to govern,” said Na h-Eileanan an Iar MP MacNeil. “They have to look again at what they’ve done with onshore wind and solar. I think they have to be governed by the cheapest form of renewables, but they also have to recognise the people want to develop in these areas.”

5) Green policy consistency is key

However BEIS chooses to act on green policy in the coming months, many would welcome a higher level of consistency to reverse the ‘chop-and-change’ culture that have previously destabilised the green policy landscape. DECC’s recent haphazard approach to energy policy has been likened to a game of Jenga that is inevitably about to come crashing down, with some commentating that the UK is at serious risk of missing the requirements set out in the legally-binding Fifth Carbon Budget.

The first opportunity to provide a clear strategy on delivering emissions reduction will be the Autumn Statement, which could provide details on the future of the Carbon Price Floor and post-2020 spending on renewables support.

The manufacturers’ association EEF’s senior energy and environment policy adviser Richard Warren says this must be accompanied by a new energy policy statement in a similar vein to that provided by former Energy Secretary Amber Rudd last November that summarises “clearly and concisely the Government’s intended direction of travel and approach to key technologies”.

6) Deliver an ambitious Carbon Reduction Plan

Despite the ‘chop-and-change’ approach mentioned previously, the Government did recently provide a much-needed confidence boost for the green economy in its decision to approve the Fifth Carbon Budget, taking heed of ambitious proposals from MPs to limit the annual emissions to 57% below 1990 levels by the year 2032.

Many commentators stress that this strong ambition must now be maintained and strengthened with a long-term strategy to delivering a clean and affordable energy supply for Britain.

The UK is expected to present a 2030 Carbon Reduction Plan by the end of this year, which ECIU’s Richard Black hopes will “secure jobs and give confidence to investors, by for example setting a clear long-term framework for support for renewable energy, developing a coherent energy efficiency strategy.”

According to Aldersgate Group’s executive director Nick Molho: “The big question now is: ‘how solid and detailed is this emissions reduction plan going to be?’ We need a clear sense of direction for the low-carbon power, heat, transport and energy efficiency sector for the next 15 years.”

7) Push the UK Government to ramp up air quality action

The UK’s air quality crisis has been firmly back in the spotlight in the past few months, especially with the newfound backdrop of Britain’s decision to leave the EU.

With a plethora of recent reports highlighting the devastating extent to which the issue is impacting the health of UK citizens, the Government must seize the chance to tackle it’s ‘woeful’ approach to air pollution.

The Brexit vote could in fact provide Prime Minister May with a timely opportunity to adopt strong domestic action and rectify the country’s ‘failure’ to meet deadlines for legal limits.

With road traffic the biggest problem and diesel “the worst of all”, Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner Jenny Bates suggests the Government creates a plan for phasing out diesel use on Britain’s roads. Other top priorities for Bates include cutting traffic levels and preventing road-building adding to the air pollution problem.

8) Deliver sustainable cities of the future, today

Key issues such as air quality will first need be addressed in the UK’s towns and cities, many of which are failing to meet international air quality standards. Even though it took London just one week to breach annual air pollutions limits for 2016, the Government saw fit to halve the amount of money given to local authorities in England to combat rising air pollution issues.

With the UN recently stating that 75% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, air quality will be one of several crucial methods in which UK towns and cities can become more sustainable. Ex-Energy Minister Lord Greg Barker recently called on Sadiq Khan to deliver a greener capital by transforming the city’s West End into the ‘Silicon Valley’ of low-carbon technology and innovation.

Marks & Spencer’s Plan A director Mike Barry, meanwhile, thought up one simple-but-effective solution to creating low-carbon hubs in Britain’s urban centres.

Barry said: “Wouldn’t it be good if the UK ran a competition to identify a city that becomes our exemplar of low carbon living showing what’s possible practically in making the urban environment more resilient and liveable in a climate disrupted world.”

Read the second half of this green policy wishlist here.

YOUR opinion: Which green policy should BEIS prioritise?

 George Ogleby

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie